One of the most buzzed-about things during the recent Sloan Conference at MIT was a paper presented by John Huizinga on the value of a blocked shot.
It was an interesting paper because it quantified things that fans have known for years. A block softly deflected to a teammate is better than a shot swatted out of bounds, blocking a layup is more valuable than blocking a jump shot, and goaltending is bad.
What makes the paper extremely interesting is that according to Huizinga’s findings, Dwight Howard made the least valuable blocks in the league, while Tim Duncan made the most valuable ones. Since Howard is generally regarded as the best shot-blocker in the NBA by a wide margin, this finding has stirred up some controversy. Most people know that Howard goes for some blocks even he can’t get and tends to spike the ball out of bounds rather than tap it to a teammate, but the least valuable blocks?
“If your block produces an offensive rebound — often the result of smashing the ball out of bounds — that’s neither the best nor worst result. The other team keeps the ball, with an expected value of about 1 for its possession. If you goal-tend on a block, that’s the worst; your opponent scores automatically, and occasional fouls push the expected value of the possession up to about 2.07.
Over the entire stretch of data that Huizinga and Weil examined, Tim Duncan didn’t goal-tend once, while 24 percent of Dwight Howard’s blocks resulted in free points for the other team.”
Again, none of this is shocking stuff. Goaltending is bad. Tim Duncan is an extremely cerebral player on both ends of the floor. Howard relies more on instincts and athleticism, and sometimes tries to do too much on defense.
So Dwight Howard’s blocks are overrated. But is Howard’s shot-blocking overrated? Even though Howard goaltends too much and doesn’t deflect the ball to his teammates, opponents sure are terrified of Howard swatting their shot when they play against him. The Magic are the second-best team in the league at preventing points in the paint, and were third in that category last season. Additionally, Orlando is the best team in the league at defending the rim for the second straight season. So while Howard’s blocks themselves may not be valuable, Howard’s value as a defensive presence is clearly off the charts.
The real question is whether Howard’s minor issues with goaltending and swatting the ball out of bounds actually help him do what he does better than anyone else, which is prevent opposing teams from getting easy baskets inside. For each one of Dwight’s goaltends, how many shots got changed because an opposing player was afraid that Dwight would make a block no other player would dare to go for? For each basket scored on a second possession thanks to Dwight swatting a block out of bounds, how many players decided to pull up for a jumper instead of try to drive because they didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a highlight?
Before Huizinga’s paper gets dismissed because of arguments like the above, it should be noted that Duncan’s more subtle approach to shot-blocking was certainly effective as well. In 2008, the year Huizinga cites in his data, the Spurs gave up slightly fewer points in the paint than the Magic did, and were a top-five team in terms of defending the rim.
Personally, I would say that Howard’s positives easily outweigh his negatives as a shot-blocker, and that he’s easily the best defensive player in basketball. However, I would stop short of saying that Howard would be best served completely ignoring Huizinga’s study. Just like great offensive players always have new skills to learn and areas of their game to refine, great defensive players can still have areas they need to improve in. In this case, Howard is giving up some points he doesn’t need to be giving up when he goes for blocks. Fixing that problem while still giving the impression he can still swat any shot will be tough, but it’s certainly something Howard is capable of.
Magic Johnson: Lakers might save cap space for 2019
“I feel really good about it. Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that. If the guy can’t really take our team to another level, and we see what Kyrie Irving has done for the Boston Celtics. Put him with that young talent the Celtics have, and they’ve taken off. We feel the same thing can happen for the Lakers. If we get the right free agent, that guy can take our young talent to a whole ‘nother level.”
I don’t think this will be deemed tampering, though the league’s arbitrary enforcement leaves it questionable. But I’m surprised Johnson – who already played a role in the Lakers getting a $500,000 tampering fine – discussed Irving while suggesting the Lakers leave money available for 2019, when Irving will likely become a free agent. That’s just asking for trouble.
You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid.
Embiid never played for Philadelphia while Hinkie ran the team, sitting out his first two pro seasons due to injury. Then, Hinkie got ousted and Embiid got healthy. Now, Embiid – arguably the NBA’s best center – is leading the resurgent 76ers, and Hinkie is left to subtweet the franchise.
Me: Sam Hinkie drafted you. Do you keep in touch with him, call, text?
JE: Yeah, we text sometimes. We talk to each other sometimes. I mean, that’s the guy that drafted me, and he made sure he put everything in place so I could get healthy. And I got healthy and I got back on the court. And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot. Yeah, we talk. We talk sometimes.
But Hinkie knew what he was getting into when he drafted Embiid, who fell to the No. 3 pick in part due to injury concerns. The 76ers signed off on Hinkie’s Process then lost their appetite for the plan amid all the losing. It’s not Embiid’s fault Hinkie couldn’t persuade people to follow his direction. It’s not Embiid’s fault ownership got skittish.
Report: LeBron James won’t take discount from max salary
James’ position on maximum contracts hasn’t changed, sources said.
Are we sure LeBron will even opt out next summer? If he opts in, he’ll earn $35,607,968 next season. If he opts out, his max starting salary projects to be $35,350,000.
Those numbers are obviously close, but LeBron will be working with imperfect information. He must decide on his player option by June 29. The salary cap, from which max salaries are derived, won’t be released until July 1.
But I doubt LeBron is fretting a few hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think he’s worried directly about the monetary difference between a max and near-max contract at all. He’s set financially, regardless.
I think this is about power. LeBron can demand a team give him as much money as allowed, and whichever one he picks will. That’s appealing from an ego standpoint, which is why I expect LeBron to opt out (or at least wield his player option to get where he wants, but more on that later).
Demanding a max salary also fits LeBron as player-union vice president. It sets a precedent teams must spend to acquire talent. That’s healthy for players as a collective.
It’s easy to say LeBron can afford to take a small discount to help his team win a championship, because that’s the paradigm. Instead, he’s challenging teams to think smartly and creatively to find a way to max him out and still build a strong supporting cast.
LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took discounts to join Miami in 2010. Heat owner Micky Arison delighted in the championships and recognition those stars provided – then cut corners on the rest of the roster to save money. LeBron noticed then left. He’s clearly not accepting that anymore.
So, every team is on notice – which is why it’s overly simplistic to say every team wants to sign LeBron. Of course, every team wants to sign LeBron. But not every team is willing to take the steps necessary to seriously pursue LeBron.
In 2014, the Cavaliers made a salary-dump trade before securing a commitment from LeBron. That paid off, but they could have just been frittering away assets if he signed elsewhere. Worse, if they didn’t make the trade, LeBron might not have returned.
The 76ers won’t necessarily have max cap space next summer, but they’re reportedly expected to chase LeBron. That suggests they’ll make proactive moves if necessary to have a chance. The Lakers should have max cap space, regardless.
But they could trade for LeBron if he opts in on condition of a deal, a la Paul last summer. How about Anderson and either Gordon or a signed-and-traded Ariza plus picks to the Cavs if they’re convinced LeBron would leave in free agency otherwise? Houston would have to send a load of picks, but it’s at least feasible.
That way, LeBron might earn more next season and re-sign for a larger max contract in 2019 – a projected $219 million over five years. That’s more than he projects to get if he re-signs with Cleveland long-term this summer ($205 million over five years).
However, that’s based on salary-cap projections that could change. And the Rockets might balk at spending so much. Of course, LeBron could also always execute the opt-in/re-sign-in-2019 plan with the Cavaliers. A trade to Houston won’t change how much money he can command from his team.
But it’s the type of no-settling thinking that might appeal to him.
“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”
That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.
Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.
Durant just didn’t play like it.
He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.
Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.
When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.
Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.
His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).
“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”
The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.
Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:
Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:
“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”
Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.
But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.
It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.
The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.
Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.
His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.
Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.
“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.
“Maybe even a five,” I said.
“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”